Will Greenland Be Tainted By a Surge in Adventurers Seeking Its Remote Wilderness?

Riding outside the town of Ilulissat, 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Riding outside the town of Ilulissat, 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle.Ben Haggar

I am just getting into a rhythm on my first mountain bike ride in Greenland when I nearly slam into a singletrack traffic jam. While pedaling over a slab of rock, the giant Ilulissat Icefjord suddenly appears in front of our group of five riders—who all stop on a dime in front of me, staring in silence. Icebergs, from car-size cubes to massive hunks the length of aircraft carriers, stretch to the horizon in shades of white and blue.

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We’ve come to Greenland in September, during the few weeks between mosquito season and winter, with the plan to spend seven days exploring the MTB potential along the country’s west coast. What we’ll quickly realize, though, as we pedal, boat, and fly around, is that this trip is more than scouting: We’re witnessing Greenland’s awkward emergence as the next bucket-list adventure destination.

“Greenland feels like Iceland did years ago,” says Chris Winter, a mountain-bike tour operator and the reason our group is in Greenland. “It’s amazing and beautiful but also so fragile and sensitive. It could so easily be ruined.”

Winter’s company, Big Mountain Bike Adventures, based in Whistler, British Columbia, runs knobby-tire tours all over the world. Twenty years ago he pioneered guiding North Americans to the best trails in the European Alps, and he was one of the first to take mountain bikers to Iceland in the mid-2000s. After that, Greenland was the logical next step.

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Our starting point is Ilulissat, a village nearly 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle but barely halfway up Greenland. The picture-postcard town of bright buildings on exposed rock is home to roughly 4,500 people—and nearly as many sled dogs. Dozens of them howl at us from the ends of their chains as we pedal past. We spin up a walking trail, snaking through glacier-polished slabs of bedrock, and then hoist our bikes onto our shoulders to march straight up a ravine. Down the other side, we arrive at the icefjord viewpoint. From here, the trail parallels the ice spectacle, and we never go far before stopping to stare out at the ice and snap another dozen pictures. When there’s silence, I can hear the icebergs grinding against each other—even the drips as they melt.

Greenlanders don’t wonder about global warming—they can see it. Seventy-six percent say it’s impacting their lives already. Chatting with locals, you hear stories about warmer weather, shrinking icebergs, and less and less sea ice. Last year was particularly alarming. The summer shattered heat records. The ice sheet saw a near-record net loss of ice. “I was on the deck in a tank top,” our waitress at the local brewpub tells us one day. Wildfires, almost unknown on the world’s largest island, raged on the tundra for weeks. “The weather is getting weird,” the hotel-shuttle driver tells us. “It’s not predictable anymore.”

GREENLANDERS DON’T WONDER ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING. THEY CAN SEE IT.

After two days in Ilulissat, we head south on an overnight ferry to the village of Sisimiut. With no roads between the dozen or so towns on the west coast, water and air are the only ways to commute. The ferry, which feels more like a nature tour than public transit, cruises past the mouth of the fjord, dodging icebergs, pods of minke and humpback whales, and dozens of fishing boats longlining for halibut.

“Tourism is still something strange to many Greenlanders,” Mads Skifte, the deputy director for Visit Greenland, tells me at the end of our trip. “There are so few resources: If one company drops out, the whole industry in a community can collapse.”

This becomes obvious in Sisimiut. In a marina full of small boats there’s only one water taxi that takes out tourists. The captain shuttles us to a midpoint of the Arctic Circle Trail, a 100-mile route through valleys, across rivers, along lakes, and over passes between the towns of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. Only a handful of cyclists have ever pedaled here, and we’re bikepacking for three days back to Sisimiut.

The first half-day is amazing. The trail weaves through the hills backdropped by ridgelines covered in fall colors. A steep descent leads us into a willow grove—and that’s where the fun ends. Bushes grow right over the trail. When we can pedal, it’s a shin thrashing. Pushing is not much easier: Every few strides a pedal hangs up, spins, and slaps into a calf. We’re bloodied and exhausted when we make our first camp.

The next two days are a similar mix of pleasure and pain—flowy singletrack and then tortuous bushwhacking. The landscape varies from narrow canyons to wide-open plateaus and lakeside flats. We watch caribou prance across the tundra and arctic char spawn in crystal streams. Most of the time we feel alone, but we pass a dozen hikers every day.

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In the last five years, traffic on the ACT has exploded from a few hundred backpackers per season to about 1,500 in 2019. They’re part of a 10 percent growth in visitors flying to Greenland in the last decade. Cruise ship passengers have doubled in five years. More tourists will come when two airports extend their runways to allow international flights. (Now the only flights come from Denmark or Iceland.) Before they do, Skifte says, Greenland needs to think about the kind of destination it wants to become.

“Do we want planes full of low-budget travelers coming in?” he asks. “Greenland is an adventure destination. We need to take care of the nature, the culture, the people, the wildlife. We need to think sustainably or we don’t have anything.”

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Before the trip, I had felt guilty about flying halfway around the world to a place that’s warming faster than almost anywhere else. But after a week in Greenland, I feel different. Global warming, because it’s such an ever-present reality here—rather than a future prospect—is simply a fact of life. So instead of burying your head in the sand, you look into the distance and decide to either do something about it or adapt, as the Greenlanders are doing.

As Skifte says, “The global warming issue makes Greenland intriguing. People should come and see it for themselves.”

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